MITT ROMNEY was recently asked if he thought his religion would hurt him in his fight for the presidential nomination. He told the Fox interviewer that it would only be a problem “among a narrow group of individuals.’’
The first Catholic elected president, John F. Kennedy, was also optimistic he could prevail. He also honestly believed his religion should not be a barrier. Indeed, he thought it irrelevant.
But the Kennedy experience proves that the candidate himself never knows the power of prejudice beforehand. It’s only when you’re headed for victory, or when you’ve reached front-runner status, that bigotry shows its ugly face.
In 1956, Adlai Stevenson had just won the Democratic nomination for president. He decided to let the delegates at the Democratic Convention pick his running mate.
After the first ballot, Senator Estes Kefauver of Tennessee was in the lead, but young Jack Kennedy, the war hero from Massachusetts, was coming on strong. As the second balloting was underway, it was now neck-and-neck. Several delegations were anxious to shift their votes to Kennedy.
Even headed toward victory at the convention, the religious issue stayed with Kennedy.Dr. Ronald G. Crystal Weill Cornell Medical College.
Suddenly, there was confusion on the convention floor.
House Speaker Sam Rayburn, who was chairing the convention, had made his distaste for Kennedy clear from the start. “If we have to have a Catholic,’’ he told Stevenson, “I hope we don’t have to take that little piss-ant Kennedy.’’
Rayburn saw his opportunity and recognized Oklahoma.
That state’s governor also had no time for a Catholic candidate. “He’s not our kind of folks,’’ he said of Kennedy. Oklahoma went for Kefauver and the tide of the convention turned. The people who didn’t want Jack Kennedy on the ticket had stopped the Catholic in his tracks.
Kennedy learned two vital lessons at that convention. One, he could be president. Two, the bosses were not going to let a Catholic get it if they could stop him. For leaders like Rayburn, Kennedy knew he had to beat them before he could woo them. He needed to win it in the primaries; he needed to take it to the people. It’s what he did.
First, he won Wisconsin over Senator Hubert Humphrey. But reporters kept harping on his Catholicism.
“Kennedy is, of course, Roman Catholic,’’ Walter Cronkite reminded his viewers. “And some observers think that the election was resolved into a religious struggle.’’
His success was dismissed as Catholic bloc-voting; the victory got Kennedy nothing. “One of the most elaborate and intense campaigns in the state’s history will end up achieving nothing,’’ another broadcaster decreed that night.
Next came West Virginia. Religion was, once again, a big issue. But Kennedy won, largely on the strength of his gallant war record in World War II. “Nobody asked me if I was a Catholic when I joined the United States Navy,’’ he told a crowd. “Nobody asked my brother if he was a Catholic or Protestant before he climbed into an American bomber to fly his last mission.’’
Even as Kennedy headed toward victory at the convention, the religious issue stayed with him. The old liberals were also skeptical. He sent an ally, Lester Hyman, to visit Eleanor Roosevelt, to test her feelings. “We wouldn’t want the Pope in the White House, would we?’’ she told Hyman, who is Jewish. He told me he almost fell off his chair.
Even after the triumphant nomination in Los Angeles, religion remained an issue. Kennedy decided to take it on once and for all, he hoped, and accepted an invitation from the Houston Ministers’ Association to address the matter.
“So, it is apparently necessary for me to state once again not what kind of church I believe in, for that should be important only to me, but what kind of America I believe in. I believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute, where no Catholic prelate would tell the president - should he be Catholic - how to act, and no Protestant minister would tell his parishioners for whom to vote.’’
It was Kennedy’s best speech of the campaign. Even Sam Rayburn was overwhelmed.
It’s a useful lesson for Romney today. Like Kennedy, he should avoid any discussion about his religion. Romney’s right to leave the matters of theology to his church leaders to explain. The only matter before the voter, as far as the candidate is concerned, is his allegiance to the Constitution and the spirit of church-state separation.
Yet even Kennedy’s historic pledge didn’t stop the “silent bigots,’’ those who say nothing but walk into the voting booth resigned to their prejudices. On election night, Kennedy stood in the dark of Hyannis Port. “I’m angry,’’ he told a reporter. The results pouring in from Ohio, Kentucky, and westward through Nebraska were showing the redolent power of that “old-time religion’’ that couldn’t stand the notion of a Catholic in the White House.
Now comes the greatest lesson of Kennedy’s election. From the moment of his inauguration the issue never again seemed important. Four years later the Republicans nominated a Roman Catholic for vice president and no one even noticed.
This year, Romney’s strongest rival is a Catholic convert and that doesn’t seem to bother even Deep South evangelicals. Newt’s got other issues. And so do we.
Chris Matthews, host of “Hardball with Chris Matthews,’’ is author of “Jack Kennedy: Elusive Hero.’’